The SKA Observatory is born, and with it,
a new era for radio astronomy
The SKA Observatory, a new intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy, was launched this Thursday after the first meeting
of the Observatory Board. Portugal is one of the seven founding members.
The Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO) is the second world-class intergovernmental organisation dedicated to astronomy. Portugal, represented by the Portuguese Space Agency, took its place as a founding member this Thursday, alongside countries such as Australia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Based in the United Kingdom at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, which is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, SKAO will have facilities in Australia and South Africa. Once completed, these sites will represent one million square meters of data-collection area.
“This is a historical moment for radio astronomy,” pointed out Catherine Cesarsky, nominated as the first president of SKAO. “Behind this historic milestone, there are countries that had the vision to become deeply involved because they recognised the benefits that their participation in SKA could bring to the creation of an ecosystem of science and technology involving fundamental research, computing, engineering and skills for the next generation, which are essential in a twenty-first century digital economy.”
SKAO will have the task of building and operating the two largest and most complex radio-telescope networks ever built, capable of addressing fundamental questions about the universe. The Observatory will have facilities in South Africa and Australia. 197 plates – 15 meters in diameter each – will be placed in the Karoo region of South Africa, where 64 already operate under the purview of the Radio Astronomy Observatory of South Africa (SARAO). 131.072 two-meter high antennae will be located at Australia’s Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research organisation. (CSIRO).
Portuguese Space Agency secures national representation at SKAO
Member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) since 2020, Portugal has been associated with SKAO since its first inception. For Manuel Heitor, Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education, this involvement “opens new opportunities for young people, researchers, professionals and astronomy amateurs in Portugal to be involved in one of the most revolutionary scientific cooperation initiatives at a global level, which will make it possible to make high-resolution astronomy through any of our computers or cell phones.”
The creation of the SKA Observatory takes place after 10 years of work to define scientific priorities, policy development and detailed engineering work carried out by the so-called SKA organisation with the support of more than 500 engineers, 1,000 scientists and dozens of policymakers in more than 20 countries.
Among these, a group of scientists from Portuguese institutions are involved in nine of the 14 SKA scientific and focal working groups, and domestic engineers have worked on various aspects of the project design. Portuguese participation in SKA has been guaranteed by ENGAGE SKA (Enabling Green E-Science for the Square Kilometer Array), a national radio astronomical research infrastructure supported by the Portuguese National Roadmap for Research Infrastructures (RNIE).
Portugal Space now ensures domestic representation. Ricardo Conde, president of the Portuguese Space Agency, proposes that this historic step becomes possible “thanks to a group of visionaries and entrepreneurial scientists who brought us to this moment, to the formal establishment of the SKA Observatory, a fundamental organisational step for the construction of the SKA telescope.” For the leader of Portugal Space, who represents Portugal on SKA’s board, this moment is “particularly relevant for a small country like Portugal, which has the opportunity to be part of something disruptive as a founding member.”
“The Portuguese scientific and industrial community is enthusiastic about the prospect of moving forward to implement and execute this great challenge. And the Agency will ensure that the scientific community will have the necessary support to contribute to the advancement of astronomical science, and the industrial sector can count on new opportunities for business and technological development” Ricardo Conde said.
Construction moves forward until the end of 2021
“Today marks the birth of a new observatory,” said Philip Diamond, CEO of SKA Observatory. “It’s not just any observatory – it’s one of the scientific mega-institutions of the twenty-first century. It is the culmination of many years of work and I want to congratulate everyone in the SKA community and our government partners and institutions who have worked so hard to make this possible.”
Professor Philip Diamond has 30 years of experience in the field of radio astronomy, and since 2012 he has been in charge of the organisation responsible for the pre-installation of the telescope. He has now been appointed as the first general director of the Observatory.
“For our community, it’s about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades. It’s about skills, technology, innovation, industrial return and spin-offs – but it’s mainly about a scientific journey that we’re embarking upon now,” he continued.
The first meeting of the SKAO board took place after the signing of the Convention establishing SKA, on March 12 2019 in Rome. The signing was then ratified by South Africa, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, and came into force on January 15, the official date of birth of the Observatory.
The Council is composed of representatives of the Member States of the Observatory, as well as a number of observatory countries that expect to join SKAO in the future. Once the national ratification processes are completed, Germany, Canada, China, Spain, France, India, Switzerland and Sweden will formally join the organisation in the coming weeks and months.
Now is the time to move forward with planning construction activities. With this, there come the first industrial contracts, which the Council hopes will happen in the near future.
Philip Diamond anticipates that the coming months will be intense for the Observatory, not only “in the hope that new countries will formalise SKAO membership,” but also “with the expected important decision of the SKAO Council to give the green light for beginning the construction of telescopes.”
The construction of the Square Kilometer Array should begin before the end of 2021 and will continue for the next eight years. The organisation estimates that the first scientific discoveries will take place in the middle of this decade.